December 21st, 2011

call it heavy metal

A Thousand Flavors of Heavy: 2011 in Metal (and Beyond)

If you get paid to write about music, you have to make top ten lists at the end of the year.  If you fail to do this Dave Marsh comes to your house and reads you Bruce Springsteen on Tour:  1968-2005 in its entirety.  So, here goes, first with my metal picks, then hip-hop, rock/pop, and finally, on Christmas Eve, my favorite albums of the year.  These reflect nothing but my personal preference, so please calm down.


1.  Blut Aus Nord, 777:  Sect(s) [Debemur Morti]

Even with a band as convincingly eclectic and constantly inventive as French black metal conjurors Blut Aus Nord, “three-album conceptual project” is a pretty gassy notion.  Amazingly, though, the first two installments rank among the best work they’ve ever done; The Desanctification is trippy, phantasmal washes of mystical mayhem, and Sect(s) is as powerful and heavy an album as has ever graced their catalog.  In America, people argue about black metal, but in France, they simply master it.  Here’s proof.

2.  Wormrot, Dirge [Earache]

A couple of guys from Singapore (and their drummer, who is apparently some kind of nuclear monster from outer space judging from the way he plays) come out of nowhere and deliver the most staggering, crushing, and enjoyable grindcore in ages.  The hyper-velocity of grind isn’t there to show off technical flash, the way it is in thrash metal; it’s there for you to strap in and try to resist.  The tracks on Dirge recall the best work of other grind legends, but it’s not derivative; it’s just flat-out light-speed fun.

3.  Ulcerate, The Destroyers of All [Willowtip]

The most common knock against death metal — especially of the highly technical variety practiced by New Zealand’s Ulcerate — is that it’s an aesthetic dead end which, once mastered, can only one-up itself in terms of playing prowess.  For three albums now, culminating with this fantastically deep slab of tech-death, Ulcerate has been proving that notion wrong, expanding the language of the genre and exploring its emotional power while never once letting up on the intensity that’s the form’s lifeblood.

4.  Drugs of Faith,  Corroded [Selfmadegod]

As with Wormrot’s Dirge, most of the material on Drugs of Faith’s Corroded was actually recorded and released last year overseas, and has just now been cleaned up and bestowed on U.S. metalheads.  It was worth the wait.  Drugs of Faith practice a kind of pop grind, with the grungy gut-punch power of Agoraphobic Nosebleed (Richard Johnson’s previous band) constantly in the fore but braced by a canny structural sensibility and some furiously hooky songwriting chops.  Shockingly good at times.

5.  Skeletonwitch, Forever Abomination (Prosthetic]

I’m not sure if they’d be pleased or dismayed at the comparison, but Skeletonwitch has more or less become to the 2000s what Iron Maiden was to the 1970s — not stylistically, though the two-guitar attack and the terrific blend of chops and hooks make the  analogy a bit more robust — but in the sense that they put out one good album after another.  It’s not that there’s something special that sets Forever Abomination apart; it’s just that it’s another great record from a band that seems to sweat them out.

6.  Indian, Guiltless [Relapse]

There may be better records on this list, but there’s nothing heavier.  Sporting an impeccable pedigree (frontman Will Lindsay is a veteran of both Nachtmystium and Wolves in the Throne Room) and a dedication to the hefty side of the heavy metal equation, Indian cranks out a psychedelic doom attack so weighty that the O’s feel like manacles.  It doesn’t have the instantly memorable quality of some of the Birmingham revivalists, but it’s just so crushingly hard and heavy that you won’t be able to blink.

7.  Wolves in the Throne Room, Celestial Lineage [Southern Lord]

Speaking of the Wolves, eventually they’re just going to fade away into a haze of ethereal wooziness, leaving behind a tangy-smelling cloud of incense, until Blood of the Black Owl figures a way to summon them back to our plane.  In the meantime, though, they leave us with this marvelous piece of work — I can’t really say it’s the best thing they’ve ever done, as that’s a dizzyingly high bar to hurdle, but it’s another supremely well-crafted and profoundly involving album, just as you’d expect.

8.  Hammers of Misfortune, 17th Street [Metal Blade]

There will always be a John Cobbett.  Metal trends and microgenres will come and go, but he will always be there, blending the best lick-heavy hardness of the past with the disjointed progressivism of the present, making sharp observations on urban alienation and doing it all with a wry sense of humor.  17th Street is marked by his usual intelligence and experimental tendencies, but it’s also catchy as hell, as if he’s been spending the last few months splicing the genes of ’70s metal into his own.

9.  Mastodon, The Hunter [Warner Bros.]

A lot of critics seem to approach Mastodon as inherently untouchable, and are disappointed when their albums don’t achieve perfection.  Me, I’m just the opposite — I always think of them as overachievers and keep figuring they’re going to settle back to a less glorified position, only to have them pull something amazing out of their skunky denim pockets at the last minutes.  This time, it’s a ton of ferocious heavy riffs of the sort they haven’t fully unleashed since Remission – and, damn it, it works.

10.  Today is the Day, Pain is a Warning [Black Market Activities]

Today is the Day has been one of my favorite bands for ages, and while I’d like to think I’m immune to the nostalgia-hound proclivities of so many other critics, I know I’m not.  So take this with a grain of salt, but take it:  Steve Austin’s first album in four years is a tremendous achievement, and very possibly the best thing he’s done since the Amphetamine Reptile years.  With a new group of players sympathetic to his intentions and the same twisted, violent sense of musical unease, it’s a real stunner.

Tomorrow:  hip-hop.


lemme hear you say ho

The Radio Don’t Play the Shit I Used to Love: 2011 in Hip-Hop

People are still making rap music!  Can you imagine?  Maybe it’s not a trend after all.  Foxy grandma even noticed some beats being jacked when she was watching Glee last week.  Thank goodness for the internet, where we can keep on arguing about ‘relevance’ and ‘credibility’ until the return of cows.  Meanwhile, here’s my ten favorite hip-hop albums of 2011, which I have compiled with a saddening lack of empathy for the feelings of Tyler the Creator.  Your comments, they are ever welcome.


1.  Big K.R.I.T., Return of 4eva [Def Jam]

2011 was an unusually rich year for the art of the mixtape — Action Bronson, Burn One, and Delo all delivered terrific examples — but no one came close to K.R.I.T.  His combination of old-school sensibilities and contemporary styles elevates his approach to Southern rap miles above what most of his peers are doing, and he’s unafraid to express emotionally vulnerable consciousness without forsaking a sense of fun.  Simultaneously thoughtful and bumpin’, Return to 4eva is a slow roll to Heaven.

2.  Kendrick Lamar, Section.80 [Top Dawg Entertainment]

Born and raised in Compton, weaned on 2Pac, and working under the tutelage of Dr. Dre, Kendrick Lamar could have ended up another gangsta-bullshit retread.  He turned out anything but, absorbing all those influences but feeding them into his own jazzy flow and raw lyrical honesty.  Section.80 is a wall-to-wall stunner, bookended with two perfect tracks:  the snarling, energetic “Fuck Your Ethnicity” opens the album and the glorious statement of purpose “HiiiPoWeR” closes it.  Essential listening.

3.  Raekwon, Shaolin vs. Wu-Tang [EMI]

In an older world, Shaolin vs. Wu-Tang would have ended up the great Wu-Tang album that never was, the rugged and raw street-beef 21st-century version of hip-hop’s greatest collective that got thrown over in favor of the RZA’s increasingly fuzzy pop experiments.  But luckily, in the Digital Age, nothing is lost forever, and lucky us:  we get to enjoy the group in genius-meltdown mode with 8 Diagrams, and we also get Rae absolutely tearing it up ’90s-style with this hatchet-in-the-face production.

4.  Kool G Rap,  Riches, Royalty, Respect [Fat Beats]

If 2011 had a secondary unifying theme after the dominance of mixtape culture, it was the triumphant — and often unexpected — return of hip-hop icons of the old school.  Kool G Rap hasn’t exactly been invisible all these years, but nobody expected the 43-year-old to come out swinging so hard over twenty years after his debut.  Solid but not intrusive production — and the canny choice to let his roughneck style do the heavy lifting instead of an over-reliance on guest stars — make this a terrific surprise.

5.  Das Racist, Relax [Greedhead]

Haters, as we are often reminded, are gonna hate.  Das Racist’s goofy braggadocio is tainted with self-reflection, and their willingness to dabble in stylistic quick-changes stinks of post-modernism instead of ‘authentic’ eclecticism, so there’s always people who are going to denigrate them as hipsters and poseurs.  But they’ve been creating unforgettable, funny, accomplished songs for three years now, and every time they try something new, they’re pretty reliably great at it.  What more do you want?

6.  Royce da 5’9″, Success is Certain [Gracie Productions]

To address the white elephant in the room, yes, “Writer’s Block” is a mess, and while you can argue Royce owes Eminem his career, the sooner he gets out from under Marshall Mathers’ thumb, the better off he’ll be.  That said, Success is Certain is dynamite whenever Royce lets himself go:  he’s learned to control his flow and tighten his focus, and the result is a swell combination of flash and substance.  Working with a handful of sympathetic producers, he’s made the best album of his career.

7.  Shabazz Palaces, Black Up [Sub Pop]

It’s hard to know what’s more baffling about Black Up:  the fact that it marks the mysterious return of the artist formerly known as Butterfly from Digable Planets, or the fact that one of the best rap albums of the year is on Sub Pop.  But one listen to the slick, sinister flow he displays, which stand out against the jagged, fractured, staggering beats, makes it clear that whatever its pedigree, Black Up belongs here.  Where Kool G Rap scores by sticking to his guns, Butterfly reinvents himself to dazzling effect.

8.  Jay-Z & Kanye West, Watch the Throne [Roc-A-Fella]

One of the most anticipated hip-hop albums of the last decade didn’t turn out to be the world-beating juggernaut it was predicted to be.  It’s a bit unfocused, occasionally incoherent, and not the dead-certain success you’d expect from two huge talents at the peak of their fame.  But who cares?  It’s still a fine album, and it demands the kind of attention it’s gotten just by virtue of the talents involved.  And while the rest of the album can’t measure up to “Niggas in Paris”, there’s no denying its monster hit status.

9.  People Under the Stairs, Highlighter [Piecelock 70]

In the internet age, bands as big as Radiohead and as small as, well, anyone other than Radiohead have learned that once you build your audience, you can keep things on lock by going directly to your fans instead of trying to please everyone with the meddling of record company marketers.  Such is the case with talented revivalists People Under the Stairs, whose latest album is a self-released love letter to the folks who have been supporting their old-school approach for over a decade.  A delight.

10.  Random Axe, Random Axe [Duck Down]

The shabby history of rock ‘n’ roll supergroups proves that getting a bunch of talented people together to create something new isn’t always a recipe for success.  Random Axe doesn’t escape that rule; it’s often shambolic, disorganized and unsure of what it wants to be.  But it’s got three tremendous talents (Sean Price, Black Milk and Guilty Simpson) running roughshod all over it, and they’re clearly having the time of their lives, so when the album clicks — as on “The Hex” and “Understand This” — it’s gold.

Tomorrow:  rock & pop.